The Senate Higher Education Committee heard testimony from LeadMN President John Runningen and Vice President Karina Villeda about the need to listen to students as policymakers develop the biennial budget this legislative session.

two student sitting at a testimony tableTestimony from John Runningen

Chair Fatteh, vice chair Putnam, ranking minority member Duckworth and members of the committee, for the record my name is John Runningen and I am the president of the statewide student association, LeadMN. Our organization is in the business of bringing forward the hopes, dreams, aspirations and most importantly the voices of the nearly 100,000 students that we represent.

LeadMN engages student leaders at all 48 community and technical college campuses in Minnesota. Our agenda is centered on the lived experiences of students because we are a coalition of, by and for Minnesota students. Four student leaders are elected at our annual general assembly and are governed by a board of directors, comprised of 11 students that are elected regionally, to ensure every corner of the state of Minnesota is represented in our organization.

LeadMN was created by an act of the legislature which requires colleges to collect a student fee from every student that funds our organization. As part of that work we run 8 leadership conferences a year, raise money for scholarships and elevate the voices of students with campus leaders, system administrators, and with policymakers at the state and national level.

This fall student leaders have been meeting regularly to craft our legislative agenda. Those students get a front row seat in how our democracy works through dialogue, compromise and self advocacy.

We have long valued the relationship with this committee and working with legislators to address student concerns. In fact, last year LeadMN recognized four former legislators with lifetime achievement awards for their work to support Minnesota community and technical college students. Two of them were former members of this committee.

Over the last week you have heard from a number of college administrators that talk about how they are doing this work FOR students. At LeadMN, and the other student associations, we do this work WITH students because we ARE students. We often get labeled as naive, impatient, or unprofessional by college administrators who are resistant to change.

But if we are going to address the challenges that face higher education - from unaffordable tuition, to mental health challenges, to students struggling to obtain their degrees - things must change. Too often our schools expect students to be college ready; instead we need to expect our colleges and universities to be student ready.

I ask this committee to center their work on the lived experiences of students like me and so many other voices that LeadMN will work to elevate during this session. We are essential teammates, to the legislature, if we want to address the challenges. I want to thank the members of the committee that have shared their lived experiences already [pause], that will allow this committee to ask better questions, push policy change in a savvier way, and bring that fierce urgency of now to the higher education policy conversation. Please continue to do that throughout session and continue to ask tough questions of why reforms are moving so slowly and not meeting the needs of students.

But my big question is this - How do we build a higher education system that is built on collaboration rather than competition for scarce resources? For far too long the University system competes against Minnesota State Universities, who then compete against community colleges who then compete against technical colleges and everyone competes against the private colleges. We have structured the system in Minnesota to create - winners and losers. We can’t afford to have losers if Minnesota is going to develop the workforce of tomorrow and one that works in an equitable manner.

We need to build a higher education eco-system that works together to help all types of students through all types of journeys. Whether it is a miner that has recently been laid off, to someone that has beaten addiction and wants to help others on that path, to the farming kid that wants to be a teacher because of the impact that a teacher had on their life.

My journey begins in Fergus Falls, MN. I came from a farming family, where we made just enough to not receive SNAP, but not enough to buy groceries. College was never something that I believed was an option for someone like me because I wasn’t a straight A student and I didn’t come from a wealthy background.

It felt like there was a barrier put in place before I could even make the choice of whether to attend college or not. If it wasn’t for the support of my teachers pushing me to try and talking about the choice to go to my local community college, I wouldn’t be here speaking to you all today.

When I enrolled at M-State I was under the impression that this was the affordable option to getting my degree and that I would get some financial aid since my parents could not afford to help me out. During welcoming week I finished my FAFSA and those 108 questions were harder than any test I have ever taken.

I don’t come from the stereotypical family situation that policymakers had in mind when they created the FAFSA. I didn’t know whose tax information goes where on the form. Answering those questions was one of the biggest barriers I’ve faced and continue to struggle doing to this day. After finally navigating this process, I was told I would receive no financial aid my first year of college.

I already felt like I had a force field stopping me from achieving my goals, now it felt like a solid concrete wall that was impenetrable. I had a choice to make now. Do I allow these barriers to stop my dreams of becoming a teacher, like so many of my great mentors in my life were, or do I go into debt like so many others do?

I believe education should be accessible to everyone. I believe that people shouldn’t have to jump through so many hurdles and have so many barriers such as high tuition, the high cost of textbooks, basic needs like housing and food insecurity, and so many others.

I would now like to turn it over to LeadMN’s Vice President Karina to share her story and some of our priorities for the year.

two student testifyingTestimony from Karina Villeda

Chair Fatteh, vice chair Putnam, ranking minority member Duckworth and members of the committee, for the record my name is Karina Villeda, and I have the honor of serving as the Vice President of LeadMN and I am a student at Inver Hills Community College.
Every year college seems to become less accessible to everyday Americans, and the pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated many of the issues that students were facing before it occurred. If Minnesota is going to come back from this crisis stronger than before, then we need your help.

Our top priority this year is to make sure that our community and technical colleges are receiving the investments necessary to make tuition affordable and to provide students with the support they need. According to the College Board report on trends in college pricing and Student Aid for 2022, Minnesota has the 6th most expensive community and technical colleges in the nation. In fact, 25 out of the 30 community colleges were found to NOT be affordable for low-income students based upon data from 2019-2020. And since then, tuition has only continued to rise.

When our students graduate, they will be the Minnesotans working as nurses, welders, police officers, farmers, medical assistants, and electricians. By making college affordable for all people of all backgrounds and offering support for our students’ basic needs, we will build a stronger Minnesota.

As a first generation Latina student, my path to get into college has not been easy. Like John, I struggled in high school. I was kicked out of school for truancy and struggled to find a path that was right for me. I worked at Mystic Lake and Treasure Island for eight years after graduating high school. A supervisor who was looking out for my best interests told me that the money was good, but don’t get stuck working here, get an education. Then at 25, I become a single mother and my life changed forever.
I went back to my high school guidance counselor and asked what the cheapest school was in the area and she said Inver Hills Community College. I enrolled shortly thereafter, but had no idea what I was doing as a first generation college student. I almost missed getting financial aid because I did not know about the FAFSA process and didnt do well academically during my first semester.

As the eldest child of Salvadorian immigrants, I play a unique role in helping my family navigate the American system - from being a translator, helping my family run a small business, to completing my family's taxes. There are multiple demands on my time that higher education policy does not consider. Due to the requirements of financial aid, I often take on more credits than I can adequately handle due to my other responsibilties.

Last semester I took 13 credits, had full time job, worked my work study hours, a part time internship with Senator Tina Smith, and tried to spend as much time with my daughter as possible. The stress of trying to make ends meet had a negative impact on my health that caused me to be hospitalized. I loved my intership, job and got all A's, but the worry of money and the limited time I spent with my daughter really got to me. I didn't take care of myself.

College debt is the reason why I have prioritized being an A+ student and involving myself in as many internships, organizations, clubs, and boards as possible. It does come with its consequences, like not making enough money, tuition and books diminishing my limited funds, not spending enough time with my daughter, working 50 hours a week, studying all night long, getting little sleep and waiting in 2-hour lines at the food shelves.
I, like so many other students, live paycheck to paycheck, and I shouldnt be struggling to pay for diapers, food or rent just to go to school. Then comes the hardship of having to pay off student debt. As vice president of LeadMN, we are just saying that it should not be this hard. Minnesota needs more people like me going to college to obtain the skills necessary to meet the workforce needs.

This session, we hope to present a bold vision for higher education in Minnesota that has four key parts. First, we need to create a culture in high school that supports students to take the step to a post-high school degree or certificate. We know our economy demands that more and more workers obtain a certificate or degree after high school. Yet Minnesota still lags significantly in achieving the goal set by the legislature of having 70% of 25-44 year olds obtain a post-high school certificate or degree. And significant racial disparities persist.

At LeadMN, we believe we can change the culture by making FAFSA completion part of the high school graduation process by having students opt-out rather than opt-in. The results are significant in the six other states that have adopted this to help more students enter college and get them the $49 million in federal Pell grants that are going unused because of poor FAFSA completion in Minnesota.

Second, we can help more students get these degrees by creating a Free College program in Minnesota that will tell every low-income student that they can in fact afford to go to college. These efforts in both red and blue states have helped more students attend college. In fact, the only community college in Minnesota to not see significant enrollment declines is Pine Technical College where they have made college free to local high school graduates. That has allowed them to keep young people in Pine county instead of sending them to some other parts of the state. It is time to take a free college program across the state.

Third, students, once they’re in college, need more non-academic supports. A report by Gallup found that 63% of associate degree students considered dropping out because of emotional stress. LeadMN conducted a similar survey of students in November of 2021 and found similar results. Mental health is a crisis in both K-12 schools and our state colleges. We are looking for legislators’ help in funding a basic needs coordinator on every campus, and expanding mental health services and counselors. The system also needs to develop a master plan to combat mental health and food insecurity.

And finally, students need academic support to boost retention and completion for all students. There are a number of holistic support programs like the CUNY ASAP model and Achieving the Dream model with research backed strategies to increase student graduation rates. We think these models could be expanded to more colleges and universities to help more students out. We urge you to provide one-time money to expand these programs out and then the results will provide the necessary funding to sustain these programs into the future.

This is our vision for a higher education system that works for real college students like me. If we are unable to meet our dreams, to attain our degrees, because the road through college is so paved with untenable costs to finances and health, then the future path for Minnesota will be challenging. The needs of students are a common cause for Minnesota, because the future of this state lies with us.

With your help, we can find ways to ensure that every Minnesotan has the ability to pursue an accessible and affordable college education.